Mr Wu owns a traditional Chinese Medicine shop in Sanchong, a district in Taipei. He accepted to exchange a few words with us about his business.
We met him on a dark and humid Friday night, as we were randomly walking through some streets full of atmosphere in the old town. -What are you doing here, he said. -Oh, just enjoying the atmosphere from Sanchong.
The man raised an eyebrow: was there really anything to enjoy in this old street he had been living in for 22 years, this creepy boring badly lit street, as he thought-or this excellent, picturesque, atmosphere full, quiet and lovely street, as I thought? In such occasion, I appreciate Taiwan people’s natural distinction; while I could clearly see he thought we were totally crazy, he relaxed and offered us a smile. At least we were harmless!
It was not yet 10pm, the shop was not closed yet, there was an old lady still browsing inside, obviously with no plan to buy anything, and the time was good for a chat; I realized part of the job of a shop owner is to attract customers to his shop, to make them feel well, to magically, magnetically have them move from the porch to the counter, have them seat down, and in a few minutes create a relation with a potential to last forever! There’s some magic in that, indeed! And that’s exactly what Mr Wu did.
So here we were, on the porch, with little chance to become long-term customers, but we had the advantage of also bringing a fresh eye here, and maybe even more a complacent ear, and so the conversation started. With a vague sign of the hand, he showed us the end of the street, some one to two hundred meters away:
“-before, my pharmacy was over there, everyone knew me! I was the king of the market! You know, people come from far to see me!
-Where did they come from, why are you famous?
-They came from the other districts (NDLR I guess for a big part this kind of business is a proximity business, coming from even a bit further away is a sign that people have talked about you), and even from Taipei County, some from Taichung! They all know I am good at healing articulations, that’s my specialty you know, and so they came. Ah, I treated many people. Actually, much better than those doctors with all their western medicine skills.»
When he says that, he looks at me, with a certain air of defiance. It is true that many foreigners do not believe in chinese traditional medicine, but the stance we have in France is slightly different, as I explain to him: «-Oh, you know, France is open-minded towards medicine, we like our medicine, but many people also follow chinese or alternative medicine as a way to protect their body and get along better with it. My grandmother has been doing acupuncture since almost as long as you are having your shop!
-Ah? (he looks at me again). You know, last time someone in my family was sick, she got a hip surgery, and the doctor told her she would need six months to recover, but luckily I came to help her and found what she had, so, after six weeks, she was already jumping in the room! She was almost embarrassed before the surgeon when he asked her how come she had recovered so quickly! She didn’t dare to say it was thanks to me.
-I’m not surprised, we consider often that while surgery is a real good point in western countries, some kind of medication and drug is inappropriate, and by no way we have the exclusivity of healing people.
-These western surgeons, they feel they know everything, but I tell you, I still have many patients coming to see me that ain’t so happy with them.»
Is it me? In the back of the shop, it looks like the old lady, still there, is imperceptibly grinning at those words…
«-So that’s why people keep coming to see you? They know it works, right? -Yes, they know I have experience, it has been 22 years I am in the business, I know what I am doing.
-But so, how come you had to move from the market to here?»
I can’t forget the way he pointed out the market, a subtle mix between slight disappointment and still vivace attraction: looking in the direction he showed, we could clearly see a market announcing its presence in the distance, with the usual busy stuff, flavors or food, excitation, noise, old people and unclear attraction it could exert on the visitors, an endless variation of always the same kind of shop, with just enough oddness to please everyone. Beauty of Taiwan!
But even if business is still OK, he had an issue with his landlord and had to move there in this more quiet street. All I can tell is that the new shop looks good, a pretty traditional setting, similar to other traditional medicine shops I know, but with some flavor of modernity on top of that, some shelves selling ginseng and «packaged» drugs. Business is business!
“-How did you come to start this business?”, I asked.
“-Well, you see, I didn’t want to go to university, study, this kind of things. And I wanted to open a business. I am a bit lazy you know”, he smiles. I heard this before, so I smiled too, people are so honest, here! Again, I think about Europe, who would tell me the same?
“-but still, why this business? There are plenty of other things to do. -oh, after my military duty, well, you know, I started to read books and got myself into chinese medicine. I felt more attracted towards it, and also the prospectives for business were good. So I had to work hard and finally I got my diploma. Have a look.»
We moved into the shop, where, hanging on the side of a short wall facing the entrance, his diploma was hanging. I have always been impressed by official diplomas in Taiwan, it makes everything look so official and suddenly serious; due to the fast evolution of Taiwan, it also reminds us that 22 years ago, things must have been really different from now. I feel that for a lazy guy, this is still quite a tough way to follow.
While I admire the diploma, the magic keeps working – without I have even noticed we find ourselves sat before a cup of herbal tea that has conveniently materialized out of the backshop after Mr Wu murmbled some magic formula only him knows. Right! The old lady is still there, now that I sit she looks at me with-am I dreaming?- some contempt! How can a foreigner look so small she thinks. I don’t mind, as long as she doesn’t ask me if I am married. I start to relax a bit, it is more convenient to sit while having a chat.
«Let me take a picture of you.
-Like this? OK
Boldly taking the whole length of the shop, there is huge wardrobe standing, full of herbs, medicines, roots, remedies and secret ingredients. How to be a really good pharmacy without one? The piece of furniture is huge, even more seen from my tiny seat, it looks good despite a rough design, and you can immediately tell it is taken care of: everything is perfectly clean, not a single trace of dust, and all the pots perfectly aligned. That’s the heart of the business, for sure.
«-Cost me 20.000. The boss gave me his business, and I bought the wardrobe. It was empty (maybe I seem disappointed when he says that, actually 20.000 NT is today around 500EUR, but 20 years ago it was worth a great deal more money!).»
The wardrobe seems to me disproportionally big compared to the space of the shop, with all its mysterious shiny glass and porcelain boxes neatly lined up, it feels almost like a person, another grandmother or something, but one who wouldn’t ask questions all the time and look at you from behind, no, one big, nice, grandmother that would care about you and bring you remedies when you are sick. It is truly precious beyond its price, I realize. Who knows when it has been made, and who knows what it has seen?
«-Ah show me, what do you have inside?
-All kind of things. You know, my customers do not all want the same things, some of them come back often, and they buy regular things, but some other need more delicate treatments.»
He stands and grabs a bunch of papers:
«-you see, those are the treatments reminders I make for everyone, I write down everything here! Today, for example, I sold some herbs against sore muscle to two customers, and the weekly treatment for an old friend is noted here!.»
I don’t know which thoughts crossed my mind first between: «Wow, there’s a lot of customers!» or «Wow, that’s a pretty old fashion way to keep accounting» and I can’t help but think about my ipad and all the technology that, finally, may not be as useful as I thought… Anyway there’s a lot of sheets, with people who seem to need all kind of treatments.
«-Some of them buy almost nothing, some roots to chew, some piled mushrooms, but some also need more expensive and difficult to find items, wait… let me show you…»
He stands and from an old plastic bag extracts cautiously an american deer horn.
«-See, this one has to be broiled and then mixed with a special tea, it is quite rare to find.
-I guess so, can’t believe you have to make it come from America!
-That’s the best quality.
-But where do you get all that stuff? (I don’t dare to ask how traditional chinese medicine can know that american deers can heal well.)
-I go to a special shop, they sell everything.
-and everyone does the same?
-… (he smiles, again)»
I had never thought that because chinese medicine partly relies on rare ingredients, having the right ingredient, at the right time, for the right customer, is important, and you have to buy just the right stock or know exactly the person who, once you get a customer wanting something exceptional (the broiled deer horn?), will give it to you swiftly. I understand also that probably, the art of chinese medicine lies a lot in the medicist himself, and this may be what builds his reputation: healing customers, building a reputation, having good and stable retaliations, this all makes a good chinese medicine store, and I don’t doubt one second that Mr. Wu is one of that kind.
«-Ha, and you see, yesterday we had just some ginseng incoming, take one, you’ll see!»
He gives us 2 «chinese chewing gums» and that inspires the old lady!
«-Oh! You know this is very expensive!
-Ah really? I look again at the piece of ginseng, and feel immediately more important
-Eat, eat, that’s good for health!»
While I chew and find in this unexpected delicacy some nice bitter taste, the old lady gets even closer, she is now totally part of the group, she looks at me and my girlfriend, and she says:
«-Are you two married?” That’s it, she said it-i knew it. I knew it. I think I have never talked to someone more than 40 who didn’t ask me the question in Taiwan! I think Mr. Wu seems interested as well. Unfortunately my chinese is too bad to ask if chinese medicine also deals with matters of love, that will be a question for next time probably. My usual technique is to ignore the question and pretend I didn’t understand, a big luxury actually when you live in foreign countries!
Nvertheless, called back to reality by this ever boring question, I realize we have been sitting here for almost fourty minutes, been talking and watching, it is time for Mr Wu to close his shop, and we decide to leave. I have a last look at the small shop, the big wardrobe, the all exotic bags and ingredients randomly parsed everywhere in the shop – who knows what’ s in the plastic bag close to me?-, I see the old lady who is now also close to the door, something tells me that she’s gonna talk about us even after we left, I have a look at the bay window where a large sign in chinese explains why it is good to trust chinese medicine and what are the top 10 treatments you can get from this shop (I find it a really good way to advertise, if you start reading you find yoursef stuck in it and are stucked already; as often in Taiwan things that look simple or old prove to be very efficient and business oriented. I like this!)I have a last look at all this;
what I see is a world different from the one I live in, where remarkably little change has pervaded over the years, that’s still the same furnitures and the same accounting, I am sure customers come and go, many talks similar to tonights one have happened, again and again, creating a comfort and a certain quality of life that is difficult to appreciate, nowadays. Maybe that’s also that, chinese medicine: a daily dose of reason and stability in an ever rushing environment where while we cure better every day, we also create stressfull living conditions day after day, pollute and kill ourselves at work.
This article is pulled out of a real conversation in chinese, made a few weeks ago, thus I couldn’t understand everything and had to make up some parts. This is not the real story of Mr. Wu, but the perception is close to what I really imagine from him: loyal to the spirit, not to the word!